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Friday, March 21

Spur HRX - the magic brew for Firstcall/Rollei Retro 400S?


We're on the subject of Firstcall Photographic again today but this time it's their 400S black and white film that takes centre stage. I've tried this film before - it's really Rollei Retro 400 S - and came to the conclusion that it's probably a 200 ISO emulsion at best and not the 400 it says on the box.

In the past, I developed it in Rodinal and D76 but I haven't been bowled over by it yet. It's just a good film without any defining characteristics. I've never used Spur developers with 400S before since they require that it be rated at 40 ISO! Both Acurol-N and HRX, the two film developers I'll be selling, rate it the same.

Is it really worth shooting a film that says 400 on the box at 40 ISO? Ordinarily, I'd say no but, in the case of the Firstcall film, it's so cheap that I thought it was definitely worth a try. At £2.49 a 36-exposure roll, who cares if it's just a 40 ISO emulsion - and, remember, it's not really a 400 ISO film anyway! We've all got tripods, haven't we? So, will it be Acurol-N, which is like a sharper and finer grained Rodinal, or HRX, a slightly finer-grained and slightly sharper version of D76 whose creator, Heribert Schain, says is so perfect that he's stopped trying to improve it? I decided that HRX would offer a better balance of qualities.

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The full frame shot taken on a 1960s Pentax SV and 55mm f2.2
Takumar from the late 1950s.

HRX is a two-solution developer that's dead easy to use. All you do is decide from the instructions what dilution is needed, work out in the usual way the total amount of developer required and split that figure equally between the HRX bottles, A and B.

In the case of 400S, the dilution is 1+11 which, with a total volume of 300ml, meant 12.5ml of both A and B. I use a syringe to measure small amounts of developer but if you're using a small measuring cylinder then you might be better off increasing the total volume slightly to make it an even 13ml of each.

400S has a PET base so it's tough as old boots and can't be easily torn by hand. For those of use who usually just rip the leader off the film and tear it near the felt trap when we're loading it onto the spiral, be warned that a pair of scissors is definitely needed. The Firstcall film has a plastic cassette with an end that simply screws off. This not only makes loading easier but also gives you a supply of reusable cassettes should you care to use bulk film and roll your own.

At £2.49 a roll, it's very easy to think of 400S as bulk film in small amounts. If you want to make life easier for yourself when it comes to matching development time to the contrast of the scene you're photographing, you could probably open up a 400S cassette in the dark and, given enough spare cassettes, roll perhaps three eight-exposure rolls from it. (Regular bulk-loading photographers can chime in here if eight exposures is too optimistic.) Mark one cassette for low contrast, one for normal and one for high contrast scenes and you can get closer to the idea of the zone system without giving up the convenience of 35mm.

Enough of the preamble. What's it like as a 40 ISO film? Bear in mind that this is the first time I've used it like this and it was just for shooting some test pics out the bathroom window but I think HRX really hits the sweet spot where 400S is concerned. There's bags of shadow detail as you might expect, the overall contrast looks nice and grain is really rather fine.

With the recommended time for this film, highlights were perhaps a touch on the heavy side but nothing unmanageable at all. Maybe a 5-10% reduction in development would be spot on or it could be because my agitation technique was just a tad vigorous. Whatever, it was a minor issue.

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Delta 100 developed in D76 1+1


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Firstcall 400S rated at 40 ISO and developed in Spur HRX


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Ilford HP5+ rated at 400 ISO and developed in HRX

If you take a look at the three test pics above you'll get an idea of the Firstcall 400S grain against that from one of the finest grained films around, Delta 100, and good old HP5 Plus. Yes, the Delta 100 grain is smaller and tighter but remember that these are approximately 840x840 pixel sections from 3200 dpi scans and the difference isn't enormous. The full frame scans would measure around 32"x48" on your monitor assuming you had one that large.

But look at the HP5 Plus grain, bearing in mind this is also a section from a 3200 dpi scan of the full frame. Grain is much more obvious here. Of course, it's not a fair comparison as we're losing three stops with Firstcall 400S as opposed to HP5 Plus in HRX but it shows that using 400S in this way produces the sort of grain you'd expect to get with a medium speed film processed in a fine grain developer.

The conclusion I draw from this is that Firstcall 400S makes a very nice 40 ISO film when developed in HRX. I would think that the similarly ISO-rated Pan F Plus might be finer grained but not by much - and at a premium of £2.30 a roll. For those of us who aren't awash with cash, these differences are important. Ten rolls of 400S for £25 or ten of Pan F Plus for £48?

If you want to shoot Firstcall 400S at its nominal 400 ISO then it's not impossible but you'll have to be happy with the look. It's harsher, grittier but still with quite fine grain for the speed and good sharpness. It certainly suits some subjects but I wouldn't be using it for baby portraits… I can imagine some photographers thinking this would be great for punchy street scenes and there's certainly a lot of interest in Germany for this high contrast look. Here are a couple of examples taken using a Contax 137 MA and 28mm Distagon, both rated at 400 ISO and developed in HRX:

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Both of the above scans had very little work in Lightroom
other than setting the black and white points.

This hasn't been a scientific test by any manner of means as the pics were shot on different days and with different lenses - a 100mm Yashica macro for the Delta, a late 1950s 55mm Takumar f2.2 M42 lens for the 400S and a 24mm Zuiko for the HP5 Plus negative.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating, of course, so I'd prefer to reserve judgement until I've made a couple of prints from the 400S/HRX combination. But I think it does show that 400S looks a very nice film when developed in HRX.

If I have time, I'll do a similar test next week but develop the 400S in Acurol-N to see whether the enhanced edge effects are sufficient to make up for what I'd imagine would be slightly larger grain.

You might also like:

New Spur HRX Dev: Same Grain, More Speed
HP5 Plus in HRX-3 New

4 comments :

David Arbuthnott said...

Looks good Bruce. Hope thr prints come out well when you have time to do them. I like the "gritty" photos as well. Its a good look for the subjects.

Bruce Robbins said...

I'm wondering if Firstcall 400S rated at 200 ISO and developed in HRX might give me the snappy "dull day" film I've been after. At 400 ISO shadow detail is lacking but 200 might be perfect.

Eric said...

Thanks for this. The film seems very good value and I'm another who likes the contrasty look. As you say maybe not good for everything but does a fine job of that outsde toilet (if that is what it is)! I'm looking forward to seeing what 400s is like in Acurol.

Hernan Zenteno said...

Specially nice for cloudy and low contrast days. But terrible for sunny days. For what I know this Rollei retro 400s was used with another name for aerial photography. Is more balanced to the red side to avoid the fog when you shot thru the distance. I only have a pair of rolls, I will try them this autumn or winter. Here are a sub exposed version with an Holga camera, I like that you can avoid an orange filter with this film, is like it have this filter included.
http://zenteno.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Recent-pics/G0000iTQlF2wjIoU/I0000smkzi1SVeCU